Record-breaker Tony Martin gets Hall nod

By Jeff Linville -

A young Tony Martin poses in his Buccaneers uniform in the early 1980s.

North Surry and college baseball star Tony Martin has been elected into the Surry County Sports Hall of Fame.

Martin had his first season as head coach at North Surry this year, leading the Greyhounds to an unprecedented run deep into the 2A playoffs. But it’s likely few of those teens knew just how good a player their coach had been in his own playing days.

By the time he’d graduated from North Surry in 1979, Martin had earned five all-conference honors in two sports. Then, at East Tennessee State University, Martin was part of the greatest teams in school history while breaking 11 school records for offense.

Martin said he had supportive parents growing up in Donald and Norma; his dad used to keep his stats in a notebook. Unfortunately, Tony’s mom won’t be able to see her son inducted as she passed away in 2004.

In high school, he played the big three sports: football, basketball and baseball.

In football, he played three years on varsity and was twice named all-conference. In basketball, he played two years on varsity under coaching legend Ron King, himself a Hall of Fame member.

Martin played varsity all four years in baseball for coaches Jimmy Jessup and Steve Triplett. He made all-conference three times.

After graduation, he enrolled at ETSU, which was in the midst of a six-year run that would go down are arguably the best in school history.

“I decided when I came to the university that I wanted to continue playing baseball,” Martin told his college newspaper. “Coach (Charley) Lodes invited me to try out for the team. … I never expected to play much in my first year, but I ended up starting in left field quite a bit.”

During fall practices his freshman year, Martin made the team and was ranked second on the depth chart in left.

When the season began, Martin was keeping a diary of the season, but soon he was in the starting lineup and was too busy to keep up the journal.

He made his debut in the second game of the season as a pinch runner because he was “blessed to have quickness — I could run pretty well.”

In the third game, he made his first start, but went 0-for-3. Still, Lodes saw something he liked and put Martin back out there for the next game. The freshman rewarded the coach with triple for his first career hit.

Martin would go on to hit 19 triples in his career, which still stands as a school record.

That was a very senior-laden team, Martin said. After back-to-back 29-win seasons before Martin arrived, the 1980 team went 39-7 and won the Southern Conference. That teams was ranked as high as 20th in the nation and advanced to the third round of the NCAA Tournament.

Because there were so many good seniors, ETSU racked up on all-conference awards.

Martin finished the season with a .300 batting average and said Coach Lodes told him he likely would have been rookie of the year except for the rest of the conference feeling that ETSU already had won enough honors.

Still, that standout performance earned Martin a scholarship for his next three seasons.

In 1981, the sophomore received an all-conference award as ETSU went 44-17 and was ranked as high as 17th. The team reached the fourth round of the NCAA Tournament, a game that determined who would advance to the College World Series. Unfortunately, the Buccaneers fell to Mississippi State by one run, 6-5.

In his junior year, ETSU went 34-19, but only finished third in the Southern Conference. Still, that put together a five-year stretch where the Bucs won at least 29 games each season and totaled 175 wins against just 85 losses (a .673 winning percentage).

While he was in school, Martin also played summer ball away from his regular team.

One season he played for the Valley Baseball League in Virginia. Current New York Met Daniel Murphy once starred in this league.

The next year, Martin received an invite to Cape Cod, the premiere summer league in the country. It was an honor just to be chosen, he said.

Martin said those teams were packed with talent, and that year, 11 players from his team were drafted by MLB teams.

One of his teammates that summer was Chris Sabo, who after working his way up through the minors over five years, won the 1988 NL Rookie of the Year award with the Cincinnati Reds. Sabo would go on to make three all-star teams in a nine-year MLB career.

After his junior season, the Detroit Tigers had their eyes on the left fielder. The team reached out to Martin, saying it was planning to use its 16th-round draft pick on him — if they could agree on a contract first.

The two sides negotiated for a while, but when contract talks stalled, the Tigers chose to use the draft pick on someone else.

Also in 1982, Martin married his high school sweetheart, Denna.

“It was a big move to make with a year of school left,” he admitted. “We love each other, and it was the right decision for us to make.”

The couple has been together for 33 years and have three children now: Lee, Anna and Molly.

Lee was a basketball star in high school and a starter in college. He now is the associate head coach of Hargrave Military Academy.

Anna is a teacher at North Surry and coaches the cheerleaders.

The youngest, Molly, earned a softball scholarship to N.C. State and is in her third year.

For his senior year of college, the Bucs had lost several key players, but returned Martin and Mike Nipper, who would both earn all-conference honors.

The team still won 20 games for the sixth year in a row, but it was a modest 20-18 mark.

Those losses came to some big names, according to Martin. ETSU was one of the top 20 teams in the country under Coach Lodes, and the boys played the best of the best.

The Bucs’ opponents were populated with future MLB players like Franklin Stubbs, pitcher Jimmy Key (a four-time all-star) and Joe Carter, a five-time All-Star and World Series hero.

In another brush with fame, a former ETSU pitcher used to come back to visit the team while he was playing in the majors.

Atlee Hammaker went to ETSU as a basketball player, but was recruited by Lodes to play baseball, too.

In Martin’s senior year, Hammaker earned his only All-Star berth in 1983.

When he was nominated for the Sports Hall of Fame, Martin said he didn’t know where he stood in the record books.

“Once everybody got my curiosity up, I started looking a little bit,” he said.

When he graduated, Martin held 11 school records and was a close in another.

Those 11 were career hits, season batting average, career batting average, season on-base percentage, walks, career runs, at-bats, triples, stolen bases, season games played and career games played. He was just one run behind teammate Marcos Velazquez in most runs in a season.

With so many stolen bases (75) and triples (19) for Martin, was Coach Lodes a risk-taker?

“I pretty much had the green light when I wanted it,” Martin said. The team played in a big park, so if he hit one in the gap he could make it to third a lot of the time.

The career stolen bases record stood until 2014, but he still holds the triples record.

Here are his current rankings in ETSU’s top 5 listings.

1st — Career triples, season on-base percentage

2nd — Career steals

3rd — Career runs, season runs, walks, career batting average

4th — Season batting average

5th — Career games played

The Surry County Sports Hall of Fame will unveil the new names at the Hall of Fame monument in Fisher River Park at 3 p.m. Then the induction ceremony will be at 4 p.m. at Surry Community College.

A young Tony Martin poses in his Buccaneers uniform in the early 1980s. young Tony Martin poses in his Buccaneers uniform in the early 1980s.

By Jeff Linville

Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692 and on Twitter @SportsDudeJeff.

Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692 and on Twitter @SportsDudeJeff.

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